“The birthplace of New Zealand”, our “collective hearth”, “the country’s first capital” – at the end of a long and unremarkable road through scrub and farmland, Wairau Bar has become the focus of scientific attention both here and abroad not only as the earliest settlement centre for New Zealand (maybe, perhaps, probably, say the scientists) but also as journey’s end for the last major wave of human migration that began around 3500 years ago.
Evidence from human remains and artefacts unearthed from Wairau Bar several decades ago and from recent excavations and analysis over the past four years is now showing that this massive and highly successful diaspora from east Polynesia ended here, a site unlikely to be mentioned in classroom history sets but which makes New Zealand one of the few countries in the world to pinpoint what could be its first important place of landfall, so representing a baseline from which to trace the evolution of a unique culture.
At Canterbury Museum, the smoking gun for ethnologist Roger Fyfe is a 69mm worked shell identified as Acus crenulatus, one of only two clearly pre-European imports from the tropical Pacific to be found (the other being a black-lipped pearl fishing lure found on the Coromandel in 1964).
Sitting in a museum drawer, item number 1871 in the Eyles collection, it is, says Fyfe, a direct link between Wairau Bar and east Polynesia, particularly the Society, Cook, Marquesas and Austral islands where similar tools have been found from the same time period as Wairau Bar.
In 1939, 13-year-old schoolboy Jim Eyles, whose family lived and farmed on the bar, discovered what has come to be described as the greatest archaeological find in New Zealand history.
Searching for “Maori curios”, he came across an unexpected cavity in the ground. Using a piece of No 8 wire, he dug out what he first thought was a gourd but which proved to be a 20cm moa egg. Further digging unearthed bones – human and hollow moa bone “reels” – as well as a large necklace with a sperm whale tooth. Local interest was huge. The egg and necklace were put on public display in the window of Jim’s uncle’s fish and chip shop, and were transported each night in a Bycrofts biscuit tin back to the local bank for safekeeping. After much discussion, Eyles sold his findings to the Dominion Museum in Wellington for £130.
Read the full story by Sally Blundell in this week’s Listener: Where it all began. Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content